Sunday, 1 September 1985


Solidarity, autumn 1985

The British Communist Party has been taken over by self-styled 'Eurocommunists'. Many libertarians view the occasion of Leninists falling out as a time for revolutionaries everywhere to rejoice. Others cautiously welcome any inching away from Stalinism. Have the changes in the CP gone far enough? Paul Anderson doesn't think so, and here he tells why

If anyone had suggested in 1975 that in ten years' time a monthly magazine published by the Communist Party would be making the intellectual running on the British left, nobody in the know would have been able to resist a snigger.

At that time, the CP had the air of a corpse that had been decomposing for thirty years. It was losing its membership rapidly; its ideology seemed neanderthal; and its practice consisted largely of bureaucratic manoeuvrings within a few trade unions. Nothing about the CP was remotely appealing. And yet in 1985...bright young (well, fortyish) boys and girls, wearing expensive glasses and chic knitwear and calling themselves “Eurocommunists” (a term that went out of fashion on the continent several years ago), have revamped the party magazine Marxism Today, and even the Financial Times recognises it as pivotal to current left debates.

What's more, these Eurocommunists have – with a little help from CP apparatchiks anxious to dump some “awkward comrades” – removed the Stalinist old guard (the “Tankies”) from positions of influence within the party (though the Tankies still control what used to be the party's daily newspaper, the Morning Star).

Rivalry between diehards and Euros

It is too soon to tell whether the Eurocommunist takeover of the CP and the success of Marxism Today will reverse the decline in CP membership. There are nevertheless signs that the new look CP will prove attractive to a wide range of people – those who find the Labour Party too bureaucratic and traditionalist, the varieties of Trotskyism too authoritarian, workerist or simplistic and the peace or women's movements lacking in broad political perspectives. At first sight, the CP of the Eurocommunists seems flexible, intelligent and modern, determinedly civil libertarian! committed to democratic pluralism and feminism. It seems to have abandoned the worst of workerism and pro-Sovietism.

Libertarian socialists can only welcome the re-thinking within the CP. But there are good reasons to believe that this process has some way to go before any self-respecting libertarian socialist could consider completely trusting the party.

First, the Eurocommunists have at no time questioned the organisational principles of the
“democratic centralist” Leninist party. Indeed, they beat the Tankies and expelled their leaders from the CP in an essentially democratic centralist power struggle. The Tankies were convicted of breaches of party discipline – they had committed the “crime” of not following the leadership's line.

Not one Eurocommunist has bothered to ask whether this is the right way to go about politics. Not one has raised doubts about the right of leaderships to define lines, let alone wondered aloud whether radical politics really is a matter of the formulation of lines which, if "correct", the masses will follow. It is rather difficult to believe in the Eurocommunists’ stated commitment to the creation and maintenance of a culture of genuinely plural discourse on the left.

Second, the Eurocommunists have failed to engage in anything like an adequate critique of the regimes of "actually existing socialism".

They have certainly raised doubts about the human rights record of Soviet-type societies; they have provided (lukewarm) support for opposition movements in such societies (on condition that theye do not overstep the mark); and they have criticised certain “errors” in Soviet foreign policy (such as the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan).

But they have refused to analyse critically and systematically the harsh social reality of “actually existing socialism”: instead, they clutch at straws, hoping against hope that one or another change of leadership, one or another official hint of reform from above, will somehow lead to the triumph of the “good” aspects over the “bad”. Even though this is preferable to the party's position at the time of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 – when the CP cheered as the tanks rolled in – it remains lily-livered and simplistic. Perhaps more important, it does nothing to dispel suspicion as to the sort of socialism the CP would bring about if it ever had the chance.

Political limitations of Eurocommunism

Third, the Eurocommunists’ abandonment of the old “workerism” is a rejection merely of the way the old-style CP, by giving almost exclusive priority to jockeying for position in the trade union bureaucracies, ignored important issues outside the sphere of production. The Eurocommunists, in other words, see the battle for office as just one activity for good Communists.

They have offered neither a critique of the ideology and practice of bureaucratic corporatist union politics, nor an alternative model of workplace politics (though this is hardly surprising given their reliance for their majority in the CP on such figures as Mick McGahey).

This simply will not do. If we are to develop an adequate workplace politics (which we must, even if we reject workerism) we have to understand the ways in which the interests of trade union bureaucrats (even those on the left) and the interests of those they claim to represent often conflict.

We need to emphasise the importance of direct democratic control of workplace struggle by those immediately involved. And we have to go beyond the demands for more jobs and more money which characterise traditional trade union militancy – forcing on to the political agenda projects for massive reduction in working time, the disassociation of income from productivity, the self-managment of production and the transformation of productive techniques. This will not be an easy task: but that is no reason to shirk it.

Fourth, the Eurocommunists' medium-term strategy of creating a “broad democratic alliance” to defeat Thatcherism is rather less exciting than its proponents would have us believe. Insofar as the Eurocommunists are arguing that the new right's attempts to make its ideology the common sense of the age should be fought against on all fronts they make a sensible point. And their emphasis on a plurality of oppositional social movements and the need for coalition-building among these are also to be welcomed (with the proviso, of course, that the Eurocoramunists' continued commitment to Leninism makes their enthusiasm for pluralism rather unbelievable).

Unfortunately, their idea of the possible basis for such a coalition is extraordinarily wide of the mark. Because they identify the problem as “Thatcherism” they cannot but end up (in spite of their Gramscian rhetoric) seeing the apotheosis of their political project as everyone-to-the-left -of-Ghengis Khan “uniting to kick out the Tories”.

Now the Tories are very nasty and it would be nice to kick them out. We should not, however, misidentify the problem; just as we stress that you can't blow up a social relationship, we have to stress that you can't vote one away either. The problem, in other words, is not “the Tories”, but something deeper – our lack of control over the decisions that fundamentally affect us. Rather than attempting to unite the social movements around a simple anti-Toryism, we should be emphasising the potential for a far more radical unity based on a common refusal of powerlessness in everyday life and the project of generalised self-management.